Date of Award

Spring 5-26-2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

MA History




Dermot Quinn, D.Phil.

Committee Member

Mark Molesky, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Williamjames Hoffer, Ph.D.


Infrastructure, Great Powers, Geopolitics, Nineteenth Century, Imperialism, Strategy


This thesis is an analysis of the growing Anglo-German rivalry over the years between 1880 and 1914, leading up to the First World War. It discusses several aspects of the competition, from economic and strategic, to cultural and social, to political and diplomatic. The main argument is that the peacetime antagonism between Britain and Germany was as total as the war which it helped to bring about. The rivalry was ubiquitous, being reflected in all facets of society and geopolitical relations. It was unique in its rancorous quality and omnipresence on the global stage. It evolved over the period from amity to enmity, operating in a self-reinforcing manner that drove further resentment. Unlike other Great Power competitions of the age, it linked domestic and foreign affairs, as well as European and imperial concerns. Both empires borrowed from one another, yet simultaneously viewed the other as its greatest threat; the dynamic of thesis and antithesis was constantly present.

The thesis explores the relationship through a variety of frameworks, and discusses the similarities between the two powers which heightened the sense of hostility and danger. The two imperialisms are compared across a wide spectrum, touching on their motivations, methods, and ideologies. Most importantly, both Britain and Germany developed an ‘imperial synthesis’ of commerce and strategy which was foundational to their imperial ideologies. In Britain, this was seen in the liberal world system centered on London that had existed throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In Germany, this was the Weltpolitik of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bernhard von Bülow, and Alfred von Tirpitz. The similarities of these imperial approaches caused strife between the powers and led to the total rivalry which presaged total war.

Exacerbating factors which reinforced the antagonism are discussed as well. Politicians in both countries used the imperial rivalry as fodder for domestic political campaigns, heightening and cementing the hostility in the public mind. That popular opinion would also be stoked by jingoistic press campaigns and political pressure groups which sought world hegemony and ever-increasing imperial strength. Imperial anxieties within each population contributed to the ramping up of the feeling of threat emanating from the rival power. The thesis explores these anxieties as seen through the lens of historical comparisons, paranoia about weakness, and popular culture, notably the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and the genre of fiction known as ‘invasion literature’.

The thesis gives many concrete examples of the operation of the Anglo-German rivalry in practice, centering on the realm of infrastructure. It delves into the details of maritime infrastructure (canals and ports), railways, and the nascent field of telecommunications (both wired and wireless). These projects spanned from Latin America and Africa to the Ottoman Empire, China, and the South Pacific. The pervasive and intense competition between Britain and Germany is clearly exhibited through the prism of dual-use commercial-strategic infrastructure projects. This infrastructure serves as a microcosm of the overall relationship, and weaves into many of the pre-war crises which brought the total peacetime rivalry into a total war.

Masters Thesis Permissions – Michael Cote.pdf (2133 kB)
Permissions for thesis appendix exhibits